The Sisters of Mercy, a Roman Catholic community of women dedicated to prayer and service, was founded in Ireland in 1831 by devout, well-educated Catherine McAuley. The Sisters of Mercy first sent teachers and nurses to the United States in 1843. In 1860, urged by Bishop William Elder of Mississippi, the Sisters of Mercy’s Baltimore convent sent six nuns to Vicksburg to teach. The order eventually created a network of schools that significantly contributed to the education, health care, and culture of people of diverse races, religions, and backgrounds. The “street sisters” worked with local people to identify and respond to community needs. The Sisters founded twenty-six schools, including institutions for African American and Choctaw students; ran several hospitals and a school of nursing; and spearheaded the training of teachers for children with special needs.
In 1862, during the Civil War bombardment of Vicksburg, the Sisters’ school closed and became a hospital. The nuns nursed Confederate soldiers, fleeing with more than one thousand sick and wounded men east to Jackson and north to Oxford before retreating in boxcars to Shelby Springs, Alabama. Sr. Ignatius Sumner’s journal of the events vividly describes the nuns’ experiences.
After the war, the Sisters returned to Vicksburg and attempted to regain their property, which had been occupied by Union soldiers. Only after an appeal to the US Congress and a direct order from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was the school released. Within a decade, young Mississippi women joined the Sisters, and schools were founded in Jackson, Meridian, and Pass Christian. More than two hundred Mississippi nuns ultimately served in schools, hospitals, and health and social services throughout the state.
During the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, six Sisters gave their lives serving the ill, and the convent cared for twenty orphans until homes were found. When Edwards, Mississippi, was under quarantine for yellow fever in 1897, Vicksburg nuns volunteered to nurse in the town. During the 1918 influenza outbreak they opened night classes for home caregivers. During the polio epidemics in the 1950s Mercy Hospital in Vicksburg was a regional center for pediatric victims.
The Sisters modeled their institutions across the state on the Vicksburg convent and school, St. Francis Xavier Academy, but developed programs suited to local needs and culture. The girls’ schools offered religious instruction that expressed itself in active social development, respect, and celebration of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity as well as an emphasis on the power and pleasure of the arts, music, and performance. In addition to nursing, the Sisters developed programs to provide prison ministry, home visitation, tutoring, and summer schools for isolated and impoverished rural communities. In turn, graduates organized alumnae associations and for forty years provided funding that enabled the Sisters to earn graduate degrees.
Rising costs and a decline in the number of members led the Sisters to sell Mercy Hospital to a health care company in 1991. The order has also reduced members’ teaching assignments, though they remain active in the state, motivating, tutoring, and working within the communities most in need of education, health care, and development. Since 2008 the Mississippi Sisters have been part of the South Central Community of the Sisters of Mercy, which includes eighteen states, Guam, and Jamaica. In Mississippi, they have a medical mission in the Delta, provide tutors for the Jackson juvenile detention facility, and run various outreach programs, including one in which retired Sisters work to ease Vietnamese and Hispanic immigrants’ transition to America and Mississippi.
- Mary Bernard, The Story of the Sisters of Mercy in Mississippi, 1860–1930 (1931)
- Sr. Ignatius Sumner, Angels of Mercy: A Primary Source by Sr. Ignatius Sumner R.S.M. of the Civil War and Yellow Fever, ed. Pauline Oakes (1998)
- Barbara Roberts, Alabama Heritage (Winter 1989)
- Sisters of Mercy: South-Central website, http://www.sistersofmercy.org/south-central/
- St. Francis School: Cradle of the Humanities in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1860–1990: 35 Oral History Interviews, Vicksburg Collection, Vicksburg–Warren County Public Library